BISMARCK — Leaders from the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party have called for a special legislative session to address the economic fallout from COVID-19 and the crash in oil prices. However, Republican leaders with the ultimate decision on whether to hold a special session say that step isn't necessary.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said at an online press conference Wednesday, June 17, the decisions on how to spend the state's $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus funding shouldn't belong solely to the state's Emergency Commission and the Legislature's Budget Section.
The all-Republican commission includes Gov. Doug Burgum, Secretary of State Al Jaeger and four legislative leaders and has most of the discretion on how the funding is spent, while the 43-member Budget Section has only an up-or-down vote on the funding.
So far, the commission and Budget Section have approved the distribution of about $525 million of the funding, and the commission will consider the distribution of another $408 million at its Thursday meeting.
Mathern, who's part of the Budget Section, said it's unfair that 14 legislative districts are not represented in either of the decision-making bodies. "That's not democracy. Only with full legislative input will we have the ideas, concerns and questions from people in every part of the state," Mathern said.
The long-time state senator added that a special session would help prepare the Legislature for next year's regular session, which will be the first to take place under the threat of COVID-19.
The authority to call a special session during extraordinary circumstances lies with the governor, but Republican leadership in the Legislature can call the group back into session for up to four days, the amount of time left over from the 2019 regular session.
There have only been two special sessions in the last 15 years, including one called by then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2016 to address a budget shortfall.
Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said Wednesday he is not in favor of calling a special session because the Legislature wouldn't have a clear forecast of what revenues will look like going forward. He said lawmakers and constituents have asked him to call a special session for a number of reasons, but he always comes back to the unknown revenue due to fluctuating oil prices and production.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said Wednesday there's no need for a special session because the state will make it through the current two-year budget cycle with the funding it already has. He said lawmakers can make serious budgetary adjustments when they meet in January for the regular session.
Wardner added that the governor has allowed lawmakers from both parties to have input on how coronavirus funding is distributed. Both Pollert and Wardner sit on the Emergency Commission and Budget Section.
Burgum echoed the legislative leaders, saying a special session would be unnecessary and that members of both parties have collaboratively directed the coronavirus funds to different state agencies.
The Democratic-NPL leaders also expressed concerns for non-oil-producing localities that may no longer receive funding via "Operation Prairie Dog," which passed in 2019. If the state reaches its revenue forecasts for this two-year budget cycle, up to $230 million in oil and gas tax revenues would go to city, county and township infrastructure projects through Prairie Dog. But the decline in price and production of oil means localities may not get all of the money many of them had been counting on.
Mathern unveiled Wednesday a proposed $1 billion bonding bill to fund local infrastructure and stimulate the economy.
Pollert and Wardner dismissed the proposal, saying the Legislature is already scheduled to meet before any Prairie Dog funds would be doled out next summer and passing a bonding bill could put basic needs in jeopardy over the next two decades.